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Book Review: Life at the Lake brings reader into home of artist E.J. Hughes

E.J. Hughes: Life at the Lake by Robert Amos takes the reader into the home of artist E.J. Hughes.
E.J. Hughes: Life at the Lake by Robert Amos. TOUCHWOOD

E.J. Hughes: Life at the Lake By Robert Amos (Touchwood, 119 pages, $25)

Shawnigan Lake is an inspiring place, a community that has welcomed many artists and writers over the years. It’s possible that E.J. Hughes is the most famous of them all – or at the very least, the one whose work commands the highest prices.

Twenty years ago, as an example, his 1946 painting Fish Boats, Rivers Inlet sold for more than $1 million, a record price for a living Canadian artist.

Hughes and his wife Fern moved to Shawnigan in 1951, buying a six-room house and two cottages with 50 feet of waterfront on the east side of the lake. They found the properties listed in a newspaper advertisement.

Hughes liked the location because it was quiet. The top floor of the house, where his studio would be, looked over the lake.

Those were the good points. Getting to the house meant climbing up a steep hill, and the house itself needed a lot of maintenance. As a result, Hughes found that he was not able to paint as much as he would have liked.

By the time they moved to Shawnigan from Victoria, Hughes was getting attention for his art. In 1950, Lawren Harris, a board member of the National Gallery of Canada, had recommended that the gallery buy a painting titled Tugboats, Ladysmith Harbour.

That made Hughes one of the few living British Columbia artists in the national collection, but the critical acceptance didn’t put food on the table. Hughes considered returning to the army or taking another job, but in the end, decided to move to the country.

Within weeks of their move to Shawnigan, the owner of Montreal’s Dominion Gallery came to visit E.J. and Fern. Max Stern said he wanted to include Hughes in an upcoming exhibition, and make his work known throughout the art world.

That was the start of a friendship and business relationship that lasted until Stern’s death in 1987. In those years, Stern achieved his goal, making Hughes famous for his work. And Hughes never again had to think about applying for a job to pay the bills.

This is the fifth book about Hughes by Robert Amos, a former arts columnist with the Times Colonist, and it is the most intimate of the five.

E.J. Hughes: Life at the Lake takes the reader into the artist’s home, and tells of his love for Fern.

After two decades at Shawnigan, they moved to Cobble Hill, getting away from the increasing noise at Shawnigan, and getting into a home that had no steps. That made it more accessible for Fern, who needed a cane and a wheelchair to get around.

In 1972, after showing symptoms for many years, she was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. She died in their Cobble Hill home in 1973.

After Fern’s death, Hughes moved three times. He finally settled in a bungalow in Duncan, where he lived until his death in 2007. His friend Pat Salmon helped in any way she could, everything from acting as his chauffeur to finding new locations where he could paint.

She was his unofficial biographer until she called Amos and offered him the chance to take over. Amos jumped at the opportunity, and the five Hughes books he has written prove that he was the ideal person for the assignment.

Along with the text by Amos, which draws heavily on the writing of Salmon and others, E.J. Hughes: Life at the Lake includes many photographs of Hughes, his home, and even his cars.

But the art is what matters most. Several of his famous paintings have been reproduced here, along with pencil drawings, notes, unfinished paintings and watercolours.

Hughes lived in Duncan for more years than he lived at Shawnigan Lake, but his time at the lake was crucial to his career as an artist. This book is a fine record of Hughes’ life at the lake.

The reviewer is editor and publisher of the Times Colonist.

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